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Remembered Today:

The hapless 61st Division


Sapper Will
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I'm considering writing a paper on the 61st (2nd South Midland) Division for my Great War class. It will deal with the division's poor reputation and how the high command's neglect of them and the second-line Territorials in general contributed to this. Leadership problems plagued them at the divisional level as well, with the incompetant Colin Mackenzie in command for much of the war and its GSO2 (LTC John Brough) killing himself in 1917. Perhaps I should add that I'm not trying to "right wrongs," just explain what happened to the poor men of the division, and how this was perhaps representative of the way Britian regarded her "Saturday night soldiers."

So far I've found five published battalion histories and an article reprinting the memoirs of an American doctor attached to the division. I would be very greatful if any of you knowledgeable folks could alert me to any other primary sources relating to the 61st, even, or especially, comments by members of other formations. I believe the Australians had a great deal to say about them!

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Sapper Will

With all due respect, you seem to have made up your mind about Mackenzie. Although he was sacked after La Bassee in 1915, he made a come-back and appears to have been regarded highly enough to hold several senior positions, before and after his command of the Division. With regard to criticism by the Australians, which I presume is a reference to the Fromelles assault, I would point you in the direction of the various war diaries of the 61st Division, which make interesting reading, particularly that of 2/7th Royal Warwickshire, when compared with that of the the Australians.

TR

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Have 'throwaway' comment about 60 'worst' available from MM winner in 36th (Ulster) Div.

Unsure how serious it should be taken. Post if interested in context.

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Have 'throwaway' comment about 60 'worst' available from MM winner in 36th (Ulster) Div.

Unsure how serious it should be taken. Post if interested in context.

I would definitely be interested. Thanks.

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Sapper Will

With all due respect, you seem to have made up your mind about Mackenzie. Although he was sacked after La Bassee in 1915, he made a come-back and appears to have been regarded highly enough to hold several senior positions, before and after his command of the Division. With regard to criticism by the Australians, which I presume is a reference to the Fromelles assault, I would point you in the direction of the various war diaries of the 61st Division, which make interesting reading, particularly that of 2/7th Royal Warwickshire, when compared with that of the the Australians.

TR

This is just the kind of feedback I was hoping for! I certainly have much to learn about generalship in the war (and about the war in general, which is why I'm taking the class). As for the diaries, I'll post a query elsewhere on the forum and if there are no bites, I'll have to purchase copies, as I can't make it to Kew.

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Source James Riddell MM, 9th R Innis Fus.

Period: 1st/2nd December (he's not entirely sure 1917) ... in his own words 'at around the time of the big Jerry counter-attack'.

Riddell states:"Next morning early we started for the front line which we reached that night and a pretty lively reception we received when we arrived. I think Jerry must have sen us socming for he put on a great barrage and the 61st, or sixty worst, Division, which was in the line stampeded out of it so we had to rush up and take it again."

As I say, I have no idea what the 61st div. war diary says and I have no personal axe to grind. Those are his words. In my experience it is ENTIRELY possible that the story of a 61st stampede is the WW1 equivalent of an urban myth.

Only fair and balaned research will tell.

Best wishes

Des

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Source James Riddell MM, 9th R Innis Fus.

Period: 1st/2nd December (he's not entirely sure 1917) ... in his own words 'at around the time of the big Jerry counter-attack'.

Riddell states:"Next morning early we started for the front line which we reached that night and a pretty lively reception we received when we arrived. I think Jerry must have sen us socming for he put on a great barrage and the 61st, or sixty worst, Division, which was in the line stampeded out of it so we had to rush up and take it again."

As I say, I have no idea what the 61st div. war diary says and I have no personal axe to grind. Those are his words. In my experience it is ENTIRELY possible that the story of a 61st stampede is the WW1 equivalent of an urban myth.

Only fair and balaned research will tell.

Best wishes

Des

Thanks very much. The words of the men who are there are always useful, if not for an accurate account of events then as a useful gauge of sentiment.

Can you give me the source (letter, book, article) in case I want to use it? I'll cite you for bringing it to my attention as well.

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Does your study extend up to 1918 when the division fought very creditably?

It certainly will, although in a 10-20 page paper I may not be able to give that fascinating period all of the treatment I would like. It will be interesting as I do more research to see how things changed for the division through the war.

It's a history class, not a military history, class and statements like "the umpth brigade relieved the xth brigade, while the eleventy-first Blankshires did this and that on the right flank" will grow very tiresome for the professor who has to read and grade the paper. What the 61st actually did in battle is certainly important, but I don't want it to turn into an attempt to rehabilitate them (or claim that some other unit was worse than them). In a history paper I need a thesis and mine will be about how government and military neglect doomed the division. Or who knows, my opinion might changed as I do more research. That's the fun thing about history, it's like detective work.

By the way, this is the first time I've talked with you, Chris, and I'd like to express my appreciation for the brilliant work you've done with your site. I've been constantly going back to it since 2003 and it's always useful.

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Thank you for your kind remarks.

I would have a read of some of the actions of 1918 - and then see how the 'neglect doomed the division' thesis works in the light of them. I'm not sure that government and military neglect doomed the 61st (if we are talking about Fromelles); that was down to poor strategy and command. It's only tangentially related but have you seen this? http://www.1914-1918.net/bat15E_Fromelles.html

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Thank you for your kind remarks.

I would have a read of some of the actions of 1918 - and then see how the 'neglect doomed the division' thesis works in the light of them. I'm not sure that government and military neglect doomed the 61st (if we are talking about Fromelles); that was down to poor strategy and command. It's only tangentially related but have you seen this? http://www.1914-1918.net/bat15E_Fromelles.html

I guess I was assuming that the treatment afforded the 2nd-line Territorials played a role in the division's difficult time at the front, and how their status made it easy for the generals to make them scapegoats. I'll definitely have a look at your article.

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Source: Letter from Riddell to family; included in 'A wheen of medals' - History of the 9th (S) Btn R Innis Fusin WW1 .. author Bill Canning

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Does your study extend up to 1918 when the division fought very creditably?

It was stiffened in early 1918 with 1/9th Bn, the Royal Scots , 1/5th Bn, the Gordon Highlanders and 1/8th Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders from 51st HD and then in June 1918 these formations were replaced by 9th Bn Northumberland Fusiliers 11th Bn Suffolk Regiment and 1st Bn, East Lancashire Regiment so maybe that helped.

Aye

Malcolm

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It certainly will, although in a 10-20 page paper I may not be able to give that fascinating period all of the treatment I would like. It will be interesting as I do more research to see how things changed for the division through the war.

It's a history class, not a military history, class and statements like "the umpth brigade relieved the xth brigade, while the eleventy-first Blankshires did this and that on the right flank" will grow very tiresome for the professor who has to read and grade the paper. What the 61st actually did in battle is certainly important, but I don't want it to turn into an attempt to rehabilitate them (or claim that some other unit was worse than them). In a history paper I need a thesis and mine will be about how government and military neglect doomed the division. Or who knows, my opinion might changed as I do more research. That's the fun thing about history, it's like detective work.

By the way, this is the first time I've talked with you, Chris, and I'd like to express my appreciation for the brilliant work you've done with your site. I've been constantly going back to it since 2003 and it's always useful.

As a suggestion, why not take the sixty-worst quotation as your paper theme and assess from the evidence whether it was a justifiable jibe?

Ken

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As a suggestion, why not take the sixty-worst quotation as your paper theme and assess from the evidence whether it was a justifiable jibe?

Ken

That's an interesting idea, but I don't want to descend to the level of effectively saying, "no, they were not the worst!" by adopting a sort of military effectiveness ranking scheme. That kind of mentality has always annoyed me and I question its usefulness. It reduces war to a sport. I'm not really interested in proving whether or not they were a poor division, but why they were seen as such and how British policies could have contributed to their situation.

I certainly understand why someone would want to rehabilitate their reputation, as they evidently fought effectively in 1918, and suffered for it. Oddly enough I've always had a soft spot for those units that have been saddled with poor reputations. I can speak from personal experience that these labels are not always justified. For our Afghanistan mission in 2008 my infantry company was attached to a cavalry squadron, and their staff treated us like dirt. We seldom got to perform duties in the field and received fewer awards than the other companies. And I know we were the best d*** company! (Spoken only a little in jest.)

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Source: Letter from Riddell to family; included in 'A wheen of medals' - History of the 9th (S) Btn R Innis Fusin WW1 .. author Bill Canning

Desmond, can you give the page number? No local library appears to have the book; a pity, it looks very interesting.

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The 2nd line Warwicks were in 61st Division. There are two battalion histories...

History of the 2/6th Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1914-1919 (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1929). Inc. Roll of Honour. List honours and awards. 117pp. On CD from Midlands Historical Data (google it).

‘Black Square Memories. An account of the 2/8th Battalion. The Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914-1918. H.T. Chidgey. Basil Blackwell. 1924.

Copy in Birmingham Reference Library - Heritage Department on the open shelves.

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The 2nd line Warwicks were in 61st Division. There are two battalion histories...

History of the 2/6th Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1914-1919 (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1929). Inc. Roll of Honour. List honours and awards. 117pp. On CD from Midlands Historical Data (google it).

‘Black Square Memories. An account of the 2/8th Battalion. The Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914-1918. H.T. Chidgey. Basil Blackwell. 1924.

Copy in Birmingham Reference Library - Heritage Department on the open shelves.

Those are two of the histories I've found. The Midlands Historical Data cd is on its way as of two days ago.

After just a few days I'm accumulating a long bibliography indeed. Once again, if anyone has statements by or about men of the 61st, or soldiering in a 2-line territorial unit, I would love for you to share them.

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Regarding Fromelles, this is one Australian historian's comment:

In many respects this [criticism of the 61st Division] is unfair. No man's land in front of the 61st was wider than in front of the 5th Division - on the outer flanks three times as wide - and the defences facing it were just as formidable. Peter Pedersen The Anzacs: Gallipoli to the Western Front p 143

Added to this the 15th Australian Brigade, on the Australian right flank and adjacent to the 61st Division, suffered the same fate as most of the 61st. It was destroyed before reaching the Bavarian trenches. No man's land opposite the 15th Brigade was the widest portion the 5th Division had to assault over and was in enfilade to the Bavarian strongpoint at the Sugarloaf, the same strongpoint that destroyed the 184th Brigade on its flank.

IMO the tragedy at Fromelles had more to do with the incompetence at Corps HQ and the inexperience of both formations than to any "poor quality" on the part of the formations and units involved. Both formations were new and inexperienced. The 61st Division arrived in France in late May 1916 (7 weeks before the attack) and the 5th Australian Division, formed in late February 1916, was concentrated in France in early July (about two weeks before the attack). Both formations were being introduced to the front when Haking decided to use them at short notice. Thus they attacked without any rehearsals or training for the operation. So any criticism of the 61st Division at this stage should bear this in mind.

Cheers

Chris

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Thank you for that, Chris. I confess to knowing very little about Fromelles. I've ordered some books and can't wait to see at least some of the 61st Division's perspective.

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Guest mick.mcloughlin
Those are two of the histories I've found. The Midlands Historical Data cd is on its way as of two days ago.

After just a few days I'm accumulating a long bibliography indeed. Once again, if anyone has statements by or about men of the 61st, or soldiering in a 2-line territorial unit, I would love for you to share them.

Hi SW ..I am in possession of letters of Thomas Harrison of 2/7 Royal Warwicks who was killed on 30 March 1918 .. would you be intersted in these? I am to carrying out research .... be great to swap notes

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Hi SW ..I am in possession of letters of Thomas Harrison of 2/7 Royal Warwicks who was killed on 30 March 1918 .. would you be intersted in these? I am to carrying out research .... be great to swap notes

Sounds great! I would love to have transcriptions or scans of the letters. However I just began research on the division this week and have yet to compile much information other than a rudimentary bibliography. What in particular are you researching? My paper will be about the Territorial Force during the war, emphasizing the 2nd-line Terriers in the 61st.

As you've probably already seen, this forum itself is a good resource. I've found many photos and histories of men in the division using the search function.

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